Another post on independent learning

I recently wrote a blog on independent learning, but I wanted to explore my thoughts on it still further.  And so I wrote this:

 

Independent learning is the holy grail for teachers.  All of us seek to somehow shape that imaginary figure: the student who listens and learns from us, and, over time, goes forward, guided by our occasional words of advice, through the gilded gates of A*s (or 7s), and onward, out into the world, but always hungry to learn throughout their lives. I’m sure such students exist, but the process isn’t always as easy as what I’ve just described. Independent learning – the phrase itself or the move towards less prescriptive ‘chalk and talk’ pedagogy – can be found in the most traditional of schools, to the more outre.  It’s a little like taking the stabilisers off a bicycle: when is the safe time to do it? When can they get there without us? What if they crash?

Of course, some do crash, and some crash so badly that they never get on that bike again, refusing to gain the qualifications they need to go on to university or equivalent.  And because education is nothing if not messy, and complex, and ‘human, all too human’, teachers have to make such judgments all the time, about developing individuals who, sometimes, don’t even know what they know or how to articulate it.  An 18 year old may be less capable of taking responsibility for his or her own learning than a 14 year old…it depends on who they are.

Independent learning has been debated for many years, and was always considered A Good Thing by those who might be said to come from the more progressive wing of education. But things started to change under Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph (with the introduction of the National Curriculum).  It fell in and out of favour at the Department for Education until Michael Gove began to question its value, favouring more ‘traditional’ forms of teaching.  And when articulate, passionate voices such as Daisy Christodolou openly rejected the reification of independent learning in Ofsted’s inspection framework, people began to re-evaluate what was being done in the classroom, and to debate if and when independent learning can quickly turn into a dereliction of duty by the school.  Teacher bloggers, such as David Didau, asked questions that remain relevant and, very often, unanswered.

And they remain unanswered because independent learning is, like differentiation, not understood or defined.  It isn’t just a student going away, reading loads of books, and coming back, transformed overnight into a leading expert on inorganic Chemistry or the Battle of Hastings.  It has to happen gradually, and be modelled by the teacher.  I recently observed two lessons by very different teachers: one allowed the students to work in silence on a task for a specified period of time; the other set a task, but kept interrupting the class with advice on how to solve the problem. Both teachers are outstanding, but I felt the students in the first class had to think harder, for longer, on their own, and as they gave voice to their thoughts it was clear that they had progressed because of the task the teacher had set up, and the clear advice given at the start.  They then learned from each other as they listened (a neglected quality in many schools) to each other. They moved forward (as no doubt did the other class, but perhaps not as fast, and perhaps more tentatively).

‘Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.’ – James Baldwin

In Angela Duckworth’s latest book, Grit, she quotes approvingly of James Baldwin who wrote that ‘children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.’ Teachers (and parents) know this to be true, but it is often ignored in schools (and at home). Independent learning can happen in the silence between the spoken words, and in moments of real research undertaken by the student over a meaningful period of time.  But teachers have to model that behaviour, and ensure that any task set as something to be done autonomously by the student is as rigorous and demanding as something studied in class.  If the wheels come off the bike the teacher, like a parent, has to be there to pick them up (in every sense) and say: ‘what did you learn from that? And what are you going to do differently?’  Whether they choose to take our advice is, of course, both a point of frustration but (also) can be a source of joy, for pupil, teacher, and parent.

A view from the States

This is my second blog, for the TES, on my experiences of teaching at Riverdale Country School in New York City.

When was the last time you heard a debate in the UK about private education, on television, on social media, or in the press, which was not shot through with numerous prejudices, and varying degrees of snobbery (of the old school type, as well as the liberal-left inverted kind)? Indeed, when was the last time you saw a picture of a British politician (other than Michael Gove) taken at a leading independent school extolling the many strengths of a sector that is the envy of many – across the world – who aspire to sending their children to such schools? Good news stories about independent schools often go relatively unreported.

The British have a sclerotic relationship with their private schools, and it becomes even more obvious when you step outside the system, as I did, and view it from the other side of the Atlantic.  Although they produce some of our leading scientists, writers, artists and innovators, Britain’s independent schools are more often caricatured as incubators for Tory politicians (which, for some, is a term of abuse in itself).  

I sometimes wonder if going to a private school in the UK instills in their students (and staff) a degree of grit, or character, by stealth: we pick up on the often pejorative language that otherwise reasonable, liberal and tolerant people use to describe them, ranging from ‘toffs’ and ‘snobs’ to, well, much worse, not to mention the guilt that we are supposed to feel from being associated with such institutions.

Although you only have to pick up certain tabloid papers in the US to see how far up the agenda the ‘income inequality’ movement is, the debate surrounding private education feels different there, and less focused on the perceived negative influence of private schools on society, and more on the social issues that contribute to the gaps in attainment. In an attempt to raise standards in state schools the ‘common core’, and the methods for evaluating learning, have been introduced, but have proven divisive. To some extent charter and KIPP schools have sought to remedy  this perceived failing; furthermore (and in a move which might be be a foreshadowing of what might be to come in the UK) big business has stepped into school funding.  Again, not without controversy.

I’ve visited a number of independent schools around the US, as well as public (state) schools, and such issues although there, are different.  Every conversation I had with New York taxi drivers taking me to and from Riverdale Country School when I was the Zagat Global Fellow, every casual conversation I had with people from all walks of life there, revealed less resentment directed at fee-paying schools than you will find in the UK and a respect for the work those schools do and the young people they turn out.  

The focus at Riverdale is on inculcating in the young people they teach the values the school embodies.  They promote character explicitly, and with research underpinning their work.  I observed lessons which foregrounded this approach, and it was impressive. Assumptions were challenged, ideas debated, ‘failure’ was viewed as a part of life. Students do meaningful work overseas and within the US with young people who are far less privileged than they are. The school undertakes this work to deliberately disrupt their students’ normal lives and to prepare them for life in a rapidly changing global society.  For Dominic Randolph, the school’s Head, encouraging students to become more resilient is fundamental to a good education.  To promote this work across schools Randolph established, with David Levin and Angela Duckworth the CharacterLab with the aim of underpinning the work done with hard nosed scientific research to the pedagogy.  This work is now being taken up in other countries, including the UK, and it will be fascinating to see the results. But evidence has to be collected, analysed, and disseminated.

For Levin, himself a graduate of Riverdale, the combination of character and the academics is the ‘double helix’ of education: bringing them together makes sense, and in his KIPP schools students are even issued character growth cards.  Some independent schools in the UK claim that they have taught character for many years, but how much more sensible it is to invest in research that proves what works and how (and what doesn’t and why).  Perhaps if we do this we can begin to move beyond the petty mud-slinging that passes for educational debate in this country; perhaps we can learn from figures like Randolph and Levin, and from private schools here and in the US, who try to bridge equality gaps that run so deep in society so that students from all backgrounds benefit from the work they do.  If we could move the debate beyond personal prejudices this would show a degree of maturity and, dare I say it, character, from all involved.

 

The Zagat Global Fellowship

This term I was awarded the Zagat Global Fellowship by Riverdale Country School in New York.  This is a new initiative created to encourage educators to visit other schools around the world triverdale imageo exchange ideas, create conversations, teach…and learn. It’s a huge honour to be its first recipient, and to be given the opportunity to join, albeit temporarily, a world-class school in the USA.

Over the next couple of weeks I hope to blog about the differences I experience between two schools in two very different educational systems.  I will post them first on the TES website; I will also tweet here

Riverdale is a world class school, but it’s a very different school from the school I currently work in, and adjusting to the different context will have to be swift. Moving from here to there is a challenge, and after a hard term’s work it might have been safer, and saner, to have taken some time off.  In my own eyes, and going by my standards, I might even ‘fail’…but if I do then I hope to gain something because I have always believed that intrinsic to this profession is the teacher’s ability to expose him or herself to new ideas and new experiences, and be open to the possibility of failing.  But risk taking is becoming increasingly undesirable in today’s high-stakes, over-controlled system.

And yet in my experience, as someone who has visited a lot of schools, as an inspector, advisor, teacher, and parent,  the best schools are forward looking and confident enough to make brave changes. At every level they embody strategic, calculated risk,  and are prepared to introduce new initiatives even when the final outcomes are uncertain. They in turn attract and retain staff who find this atmosphere the most conducive to effective teaching and learning; and ideally, this produces young people who are willing to embrace constructive change, seeing it as part of their own growth. Much of this ongoing process is dependent on a profound trust in the school’s leadership, but in time it becomes a virtuous circle. Scaling such things up is, as Sir Michael Barber has so convincingly argued, essential to the complex process of creating a school-led improvement programme.Conversely, of course, the worst schools I have been to avoid change (including those that are academically very successful) believing that any adjustments might endanger what they have carefully protected over many years. They are managed, not led; they have development plans, but no vision.

Many teachers on both sides of the Atlantic (including Riverdale) are actively discussing grit and resilience, and the focus, quite rightly, is on how we can inculcate it in the young people we teach.  But surely the debate should be widened so that it includes resilience among teachers (who are often characterised by commentators as a group of miserablists who talk only about the negatives of the profession, rather than its privileges), as well as an institutional grit that embodies the robust strength of character that can only come with self-confidence. But such things might only come when the school is itself prepared to learn from failure, resembling an adult in charge of his own destiny: the physical embodiment, if you like, of the qualities it wishes everyone who works in the school to share.  But that’s another debate.  I’m off to pack for New York.

 

 

Keep talking, keep listening, keep learning

Excellent teaching is not just about the outcomes for pupils, it is also about how teachers themselves learn and develop. Just as we encourage pupils to reflect on their strengths and on the areas of weakness they could improve, it is important that we, as teachers, do the same. Lesson observations, whether by an inspector or a colleague, provide a vital part in this process and, if approached in the right way, could be seen as the teacher’s equivalent of a Bryanston correction period, helping both the observer and the observed deepen their understanding of their own teaching styles and subject.

When inspectors go into schools a core part of the process is lesson observation: typically, when I inspect a school, I will see about 10-15 lessons and assess whether they are a 1 (excellent), 2 (good), 3 (sound), 4 (unsatisfactory). For a school to gain an excellent in quality of teaching (which is what Bryanston recently achieved) they must have a high proportion of lessons graded as excellent. Putting all those lesson observation forms together at the end of the inspection is an illuminating experience: it reveals, quite clearly and categorically, whether the school puts teaching and learning right at the heart of everything it does. It might surprise you to learn that some schools do not: without clear leadership they have drifted away from this core duty. Inspections are a necessary corrective, a vital part of a process that, hopefully, can help schools to rediscover the transformative impact inspiring teaching can have on young people. Inspections are dangerous when the fear of being inspected leads school policy (this is perhaps more evident in the maintained sector, which is inspected by Ofsted).

No teacher wants to hear that they are anything less than brilliant: in fact, rather a lot of teachers would like to see themselves as a combination of Robin Williams from Dead Poet’s Society and Mr Chips (perhaps there are some chemistry teachers who rather like Walter White from Breaking Bad, but they won’t own up to it). An excellent school encourages debate about teaching and learning. In such schools, teachers talk about pedagogy, rather than complain about the children they teach; a significant proportion of staff are actively interested in learning about their own profession: they read (and write blogs), they try new things, they are open-minded about new strategies, they reflect on the lessons they have taught, and plan future lessons accordingly; and they like sharing ideas. Crucially, they want to learn.

And they like learning from each other. Bryanston is currently involved in a process of lesson study: we have agreed on key areas upon which we want to improve, and we try to focus on these areas when we watch other colleagues teach. We encourage each other to visit unfamiliar subjects, so that we can really learn something new. Such lesson studies need only be for 10 or 15 minutes, and the conversations afterwards can be very focused, or part of a wider discussion. This can be exhilarating: English teachers need to be reminded about the poetry of mathematics; science teachers need to lose themselves in the intensity of Shakespeare’s language; history teachers can only benefit from understanding a little more about economics, but it is also fascinating to hear why a teacher taught that subject in that way.

The aim is to embed an ongoing culture of professional dialogue so that all teachers learn from each other. If we can do that, then inspections, vital though they are, will also become an opportunity for learning, rather than something to be tolerated (or feared). The ultimate aim of all schools, and all school systems, is to view inspections – and inspectors – as critical friends, professional equals who engage in discussion. That happens when a school really is excellent (it happened to us in Bryanston), and when inspectors do not seek to reduce a school to something utilitarian and measurable, but instead treat a school as a complex organisation that needs to be understood on its own terms. The challenge for all those involved in running schools, and to those who want to see them get better, is simple: keep talking, keep listening, keep learning.


	

Academic Bryanston: a new boy’s first impressions

Every independent school in the UK likes to see themselves as unique: they might market themselves as distinctive, but the language used on websites, or in glossy brochures, often has the same buzzwords and phrases (‘holistic education’, ‘well rounded individuals’, ‘self-confident’ and so on, as if there are any schools in the country who would not endorse these). The reality is that most schools have more in common than they would care to admit (and I would include state schools in that): teachers teach their pupils, mark their work, enter examinations, and then send them out into the real world. Bryanston, however, really is different: the modified Dalton Plan, upon which Bryanston’s academic system is based, puts it into a tiny minority of schools worldwide. When I worked at Dauntsey’s I knew of Bryanston from afar, and ever since then have wanted to know more about it: did it really work in practice, rather than in theory? What results did it get? And so after nearly a term of being here I think I’m beginning to get a sense of the school’s academic system. It’s been an education!

We know from the recent ISI inspection that Bryanston is officially ‘excellent’ in every category. And I know from conversations with the inspection team that one of the (many) things that impressed them about the school is our academic system: it was seen as a unique and integral part of the school’s identity, and something which clearly added real value to the quality of our pupils’ learning. The inspectors noted that:

In line with the school’s original founding aims, teaching is effective in promoting pupils’ progress through learning to work independently, guided by individual tutoring.

It was Bryanston’s ‘one-to-one’ support that was singled out as a means of ‘promoting the pupils’ personal development’. This progress is at the core of every pupil’s experience of Bryanston: there is an emphasis placed on individualised care and support, so that everyone, regardless of their ability, is able to meet with an adult (either a tutor or their subject teacher) to discuss their studies, as well as their extracurricular commitments. It is this ‘close connection’ that, the inspectors said, contributed to the ‘rapid progress’ they make in their subjects, and it also explains why so many OBs retain such a strong bond with the school.

Key to this is the tutor. In most schools tutoring is unevenly delivered: in boarding schools tutors usually have a group of about 10 pupils whom they see once a week; usually, they give this group up after one year. It could not be more different at Bryanston: here, a tutor has individual tutorial pupils whom they meet, one-to-one, every week. There is no group because we view everyone as an individual. And this selection of tutorial pupils is governed not by house, but by a careful process of selection. Crucially, the tutor remains with their tutorial pupils throughout their school career, ensuring a mutual, and deep, form of understanding and trust.

Correction periods build on this: at Bryanston each sixth form pupil will see their subject teachers one-to-one once a week to discuss key areas of their course. This can be transformative for the pupil who can quickly go from a sense of uncertainty about a topic, to one of insight and understanding. Again, the key here is that personalised care. Compare and contrast that with the increasingly depersonalised, screen-driven ‘interactions’ that dominate our digital lives. Little wonder that the system is so valued, and felt by many to be authentic, have academic rigour, and the pupils’ interests at its heart.

I have visited a lot of schools in my career, both as an inspector, and as someone interested in different school systems. Among those that have impressed me most are the fully IB schools in the Netherlands and Germany, the Harkness schools in New England (such as Philips Andover and Philips Exeter), and the Core Knowledge schools in New York. These are very different, but equally world class, institutions. But Bryanston’s academic system is equal to them because, like them, we have an academic philosophy that works and an ethos that supports it. More importantly, we know that the academic system we have works for us, rather than because a new government initiative says it should. That’s not to say it cannot improve: it can and will, but I hope that the school continues to remain true to its founding principles, adapting its approach on its own terms. That is the value, and measure, of true independence.